Rotherham Open Arts Renaissance (ROAR) chief executive SHARON GILL talks to multi-talented artist Chris Bilton
CHRIS is not someone who seeks public approval, and you may not have come across his work unless you visited the Old Market Gallery in Rotherham when it was open or on Facebook.
But here is a man whose sheer enjoyment of being creative has been spilling out all his life, which apart from a few stints of working away has been spent here in Rotherham. You could say Rotherham runs in his family’s veins from at least his great great grandparents to his own grandchildren.
When talking to Chris you cannot escape his enthusiasm for creating. He recalls that one of his earliest memories was holding a pencil in his hand, and how when he was very young he loved colouring and drawing.
He modestly states that he felt pretty average at school, keeping a low profile, and how one young exuberant art teacher had seen something in Chris. When the school decided to replace the old-fashioned desks with the ink wells, this art teacher asked Chris if he could do anything with them? He proceeded to dismantle the desks down to the hardboard bottoms of the drawers, which he transformed into a bubble-like structure of intersecting circles — his first sculpture.
The art teacher took the work and placed it in the school quadrangle. This was a strange and new phenomenon for the school, and for Chris. He stood and observed the reactions of his peers and the teachers.
One teacher, who was not a favourite — an ex-army Major — asked Chris, “Did you do that, Bilton?” in an accusatory tone. Chris answered, “Yes, sir.”
“What work does your father do?”
“He’s a steelworker”.
Chris recalls how the teacher had stared at him hard, and he observed the struggle in this teacher to equate how the son of a Rotherham steelworker could be someone with not only the imagination but the inclination to manifest that creativity into the object on show on his quadrangle.
This proved to be a seminal moment for Chris, as he realised that art had the power to affect people in a significant way, whether that would be positive or negative.
To further illustrate this, Chris recalls a piece of work he made for Gallery Town, called Synaesthesia, where he was depicting how people hear colour. This work had such an effect on someone that they felt completed to pull it off the wall, vandalise it and then discard it. It cannot be denied that the work had impact!
Encouraged by this new found confidence that he could do something different, and with the support of his family, Chris went to college to pursue a creative career.
It was here at Rotherham College of Art and Technology in 1971 that he met another great influence on his life, the late Derek Allport.
In the first year he covered fine art basics and Chris found himself drawn to illustration. With a strong work ethic, in the second year he studied Advertising and Design with another influential teacher Dave Taylor. Chris recognised this was the career path he wanted, which would enable him to keep his enjoyment and passion for making art as a serious pastime without financial pressures, while still having a job in the creative sector.
There had been no noticeable family history with the arts, rumours of a great great uncle who had been an engraver being the closet thing. Chris’s sculptural creative side proved to be a big mystery to his father, but he was encouraging all the same. After all, working in a design studio was at least a clean environment compared with the steelworks or down the coal mine.
We talked about working for design companies and agencies where you are at the mercy of not only your employer but the clients, with so many different people to please, working to someone else’s brief. While this instils a sense of discipline and a range of techniques, it does not provide much room for flights of fancy. This did not stop Chris working in the field for over 40 years.
He was in his 50s when, working part-time, he decided to attend a poetry writing course run by Ian McMillan, the Bard of Barnsley.
Here is another influential artist in Chris’s life. Ian suggested Chris attend university. This was a new concept to Chris as he had never thought about studying for a degree, especially in his 50s and with no other family member having been to university.
But he did go and studied English Literature with Theatre Studies part-time over six years.
I asked about the Theatre Studies as until this point Chris’s enthusiasm had been more focused on the Fine Arts. Like so many beneficial turning points in life, it seems this was accidental, as the theatre course did not recruit sufficient students so it was bolted on to the English Literature course.
Without that serendipitous event, Chris would not have written several plays — many performed professionally throughout the region — with the support of the tremendous tutors.
He has also collaborated with an artist and writer based in Florida, Dorraine Cooper Rooney, for whom he has illustrated books and jointly authored a number of publications.
Now retired, Chris refers to being ‘let loose’. He feels totally unencumbered by style, subject matters, medium and can easily move between painting, pen and ink, photography, photoshop artwork, plein-air painting, woodwork and sculpture depending on the way the wind blows.
Still writing poetry, Chris used to attend ROMP (Rotherham Open Mic Poetry) where he met Gav Roberts who he cites as being influential in the spoken word.
It seems to me that like all productive creatives, Chris has structure and routine to his day. He swims a mile each morning at the local leisure centre and walks and paints in Thrybergh Park. He has multiple rooms and sheds that are dedicated to different art forms, each stuffed to the gunnels and with years of works in progress. There is never time to rest and who needs to if it’s what you enjoy?
Chris also volunteers as a mentor at the children’s literacy charity Grimm & Co and has been illustrating the children’s stories since the doors opened. He has also offered his services as a residential wizard and handyman. Consequently, his grandchildren have grown up in and out of this creative environment, and only time will tell how this will impact on their life choices.
We talked about the influences on Chris’s art appreciation, and the importance of being able to access art wherever it may be. Chris recalls how he revelled in visiting art galleries even when he was younger, and looking at abstract art asking all those questions such as what is he doing and why? Even today those same questions remain relevant and now he asks them of his own creative activity.
Chris loves to soak up the atmosphere in a gallery, not at all uncomfortable in the space, and found that the art of looking came naturally. There was no sense of them and us, and Chris always felt his work was just as worthy of being on the walls, even though exhibiting has never been a priority.
Those artists that inspire are numerous but include Jeff Koons and Christo who is known for wrapping up buildings and landmarks. Also Henry Moore, Lucian Freud, David Hockney, Francis Bacon and Andy Warhol, and surprisingly to Chris himself, Damien Hirst. Chris recalls when he heard about the artist who placed a sheep in formaldehyde in a glass tank, he like many people thought ‘give me a break’. That is until he saw the work at Leeds City Art Gallery and had a WOW moment at the sheer outrageousness of it. He made his own homage to Damien with a sculpture where he is being attacked by a sheep. Humour is never far away it seems.
What’s next? He works a lot in A4 and A3 for storage convenience but feels it’s the right time to go bigger and better with canvases and sculptures. Chris has written a film script about the Miners’ Strike, a comedy drama that he would like to realise. Maybe a big exhibition would also be acceptable now there is a lifetime’s body of work to select from.
To close in Chris’s own words: “If you can paint and draw you have a gift forever — enjoy it.”
- Find out more about Chris at facebook.com/biltonwords